The Mystery of The Lost Shamans "Al Sulaba"
 

Theories about their origin:
Among the nomadic tribes of the Arab Peninsula is a peculiar tribe who are the most knowledgeable of the Peninsula's deserts, oases, wadis, hills, and mountains, as well as its animals and plants. This tribe, called Al Sulaba, are the most widespread in those parts, and the most capable of crossing those arid plains. Some Bedouins call them Al Sulban (meaning the crosses) or Al-Khlawiyah (a name derived from khala, meaning wilderness, implying a comparison to pariah dogs). Despite their prodigious abilities, the tribe is humble, small in numbers, weak in strength, low in status, and of modest in ancestral origins. In fact its origins are not known among Arabs (to say which is, in Arab culture, a gross insult).

The tribe has no tribal territory or deereh or a country in the desert of which it dwells. Its branches spread from the Syrian desert in the north (around Palmyra) to Mossul and the south-eastern desert in Iraq, to Najd and the extreme south west of Hijaz in contemporary Saudi Arabia, and in Dahna beyond Kuwait.

The first literary reference to them was by Suleiman Al-Bustani, who published a lecture in Al-Muqtataf, in which he divided nomads into three categories: Bedouins, semi- Bedouins, and the Bedouins of Bedouins. The Sulaba he put in the third category, and forwarded the theory that they descend from the Crusaders (Al-Salibiyeen in Arabic), after the Mameluks had defeated and dispersed them. Al-Bustani made a second and more extensive reference to Al-Sulaba in the 11th volume of Da'erat Al Ma'aref, an encyclopedia published by Butrus Al-Bustani in 1911. In this text he defends the theory that they descend from the Crusaders.

The first foreign writer to refer to this tribe was W. Pierre, in the Islamic encyclopedia, who claimed that they are Arabs who converted to Islam at a late period, and that their customs and humble status indicate that they were victims of an old disaster. French anthropologists during the mandate over Syria and Lebanon developed the theory that Al-Sulaba are of a non-Arab racial origin, possibly Indian, probably brought to Baghdad as musicians for an Abbasid caliph. They are believed to have dispersed in the desert to escape Tamerlane's attack on Baghdad. This theory was based on some of Al-Sulaba's expressions which are close to some Indian dialects, that some of their myths are close to those in the book: A Thousand and One Nights, and because many of their clans live close to the Gulf.

Curiously, early travellers, such as Karsten Neibuhr, who visited Al Hijaz and Yamen, and earlier travellers made no reference to this tribe, which would seem to suggest that Al-Sulaba did not exist before this date. The first traveller who referred to them was John Burkehardt, who described them as a tribe from the north, that raise no horses nor camels, whose tents are threadbare, and who hunt for food, relying beg among other tribes for gunpowder, or the means to purchase it. He made no reference to their being of Indian extraction.

Sir Richard Burton, whose journey took place in 1853, referred to them by the name Khlawiyah, but did not refer to their being of Crusader origin, nor even to their being Christians. He said that they were despised like the tribe of Haytam that dwells around Yanbu', and that they work as tinkers and breeders of Saluqi hounds and donkeys which they exchange as dowries for their women, which makes them an object of scorn among Bedouins.

The first person to suggest the possibility of a Christian origin was the English traveller William Belgrave who journeyed in the peninsula in 1862, and who published the book of his travels in 1866. He referred to them in course of his book on medicine and branding among the Bedouins, referring to them as the most skillful healers among Bedouins. He postulated that they were not of Arab origin, and that they claimed to be a northern people, which was supported by their fair skin and handsome features, as well as by their spontaneity, as opposed the suspicious nature of their fellow desert-dwellers. He maintained that their names and customs are Christian, but did not suggest a Crusader origin.

Other travellers believed that they gypsies, and described their annual migration at the end of winter across the Euphrates to hunt wild donkeys in order to cross-breed them with their own herds. Unlike Belgrave, other European travellers described Al-Sulaba as being very ugly in looks, living as parasites who claim poverty although they are rich, but they bury their money to preserve it, and eke out a living by begging, tinkering, and hunting. The contempt in which they are held permits them freedom of movement, unhindered by national or tribal borders, and spares them from paying taxes since no one deigns to request it of them.

One of the most eloquent descriptions of Al-Sulaba was given by Lady Anne Blunt, who described two youths from the tribe as being of great beauty, with perfectly formed faces, almond-shaped eyes, white teeth, and skin like polished ivory. She also described a four-foot-tall woman and a little girl as being the most delightful creatures she had ever seen. She portrayed them as being very short, but perfectly proportioned, with very small hands and feet, with a strange smile like one who is scared, and a surprised look in their eyes that makes them look more like untamed creatures rather than human beings. Lady Anne deduced that Al-Sulaba are neither Gypsies nor Arabs, but that they originate from India like Gypsies.

A subsequent traveller, William Writ searched for their origins in the Arab Peninsula. He forwarded the theory that they escaped from the siege of Karbala, leaving their comrades in arms to be massacred. Since then, they were accursed and held in shame, at par with women. Consequently, they are considered unworthy of riding or even possessing horses, their mounts being confined to donkeys.

According to this theory, they belong to the Isma'ili faith. Unlike other desert dwellers, writes Writ they bear no grudge to anyone, and they are not treacherous. Instead of indulging tribal wars and raids, they live by hunting and raising donkeys.

One of the most authoritative documents on the Sulaba, is the study of anthropologist Henry Field who conducted cephalic studies on various tribes and peoples of the middle East. He studied more than a hundred Sulaba who lived around Kuwait, and remarked that they constitute a group apart, largely because of the contempt in which their Arab neighbours hold them, which prevents them from mingling and mixing with others. He noticed that they have long narrow heads, with black eyes; but they did not allow him to take measurements of their heads.

Customs and traditions:
Al Sulaba themselves claim that their name derives from the word salb (meaning rigid or tough), which they hold to be an indication that they are the first of the Arabs. They also claim to be God's chosen people, although all other Arabs hold them in extreme contempt.

Among their peculiar customs in weddings and circumcisions is to erect a wooden cross covered with red cloth and decorated with feathers, which symbolises an invitation to the tent of the person celebrating. On these occasions young men and women form two lines opposite each other, and they dance around the cross, coming close to each other till they almost touch, and men are allowed to kiss the shoulders of women in course of the dance.

Al Sulaba only intermarry among themselves, by agreement between the bride and groom, and after the consent of the parents. No Bedouin would deign to marry a woman from this tribe, though many admit that Al-Sulaba women are the prettiest in the desert.

In funerals and in prayer, they also have different customs from other Bedouins. They perform their pilgrimage not to Mecca, but to Harran in Iraq. Some of their men keep holy scripts similar to the Old Testament, written in Chaldean or Assyrian.

They revere the northern star which they call Jah since it is the constant reference point that guides travellers. They also revere another star in the Capricorn. To show their reverence they stand erect facing the star, with their arms outstretched, so that the body resembles a cross.

Al Sulaba are master hunters, particularly deer which they hunt for food and for its skin which they wear. But the supplement this diet with dates, locust, and virtually anything else that they find. Unlike all monmotheists, Al-Sulaba eat carrion, blood, and dog meat.

They have a peculiar method of hunting deer. They cover themselves with deerskins and follow the prey on all four until they reach within range of their rifles. Sometimes their disguise permits them to go close enough to capture the animal alive.

* Issued in 25-11-1996. Written by Rami Sajdi, Copyright © Rami Sajdi 1997 All Rights Reserved

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